A NAME IS a kind of face," a 17th-century divine wrote, and indeed in both our identity is compacted, to our joy or sorrow: we can tamper with them, alter them, but is the outcome the real us? No emblems of our being are more essential. Names are rather like clothes, too something one can't decently be without, subject to taboos, ruled by convention and custom, with allowances for continual small outbursts of fantasy and bad taste. They are at the mercy of fashion that leaves them behind long before their owners have ceased to need them; they survive us for a while, poignant reminders of a vanished presence; finally they are husks, like garments in thrift shops, meaningless names on gravestones or in old telephone books. They are not essences, but they seem to harbor essence, and deprived of them we are naked impostors.

Though we cannot help being handsome or tone-deaf, we can change our names - mere tags, jokes (manly parents certainly seem to have been in a joking mood); yet how patiently most people submit to onomastic misfortune, enthralled like any aborigine by name magic. But here are two books that urge us not to submit. One of them concerns itself with names in toto , the other with the first name only, that most potent and personal element of the package.

Christopher Anderson, a People magazine editor, presents a miscellany of onomatological information, some of it interesting, gussied up as a set of rules for winning a life (by no coincidence the book's editor, Michael Korda, is the author of much published advice relating to the petty stratagems of success). But as Lesie Dunkling makes plain in his better-written, more attractive and scholarly book, there is a historical process at work that makes gamesmanship risky. Fashionable names enjoy so briefly that sunlit moment when everybody wants one that by the time an infant is old enough to assess what his parents chose with such an eye to fashion, euphony, and propriety, it may be thought as ugly and all-wrong as hot pants, platform shoes, or a 1963 Cadillace - the list of 1950 favorites already looks like an automobile junkyard. It isn't easy to play name-games with creatures who life span is 70 years - easier with cats, dogs, and characters in novels (though even writers must take care: the character Hazel in Upstairs, Downstairs , presumably born c, 1890, has a name unknown outside the United States before 1900).

For names date their owners like any modish ornament. When the magic has fled, one is left a hopelessly dowdy, aging Harold or Gladys. No reasonable young man would now wish to be called Earl, Elmer, Leroy, or Eugene (as Gore Vidal, who shed it, knew well), but a century ago they were among the top 50 in the U.S. They same disrepute will certainly overtake today's favorites. Jodi, Heather, Joshua, and Sean may in time be grateful for the alternative middle name (in this country only four per cent of men and six per of women lack them), if it is a sturdy surname or one of the very few classics that resist time - but even some of these have suddenly been struck with Dutch elm disease.

Our names can date us to the very decade of our birth. Edgar and Bertha, like Harold and Gladys, were bron before 1905; Brenda, Deborah (and, God forbid, Debra), Alan, Kenneth, and Keith are pre-1960. Linda, a case by itself, must have been born in the late '40s: the name swam out of nowhere, spawned, and disappeared, leaving a teeming generation of Lindas.

A strange name has bad vibrations; it sends out the wrong signals, saying that its owner is different from us: like his name, not quite right. And though there have been men called Cloudless, Royalbud, Mountain, and Dial who may have survived the experiment, most parents exercise some caution. A mere two per cent of names are unique, but only one out of 25 girls gets the most popular name of the year. For centuries, and as late as 1950s, it was Mary, but is now Jennifer - Mary having slid sickeningly to No. 31. (Amy, Sarah, Michelle, and Kimberly are runners up.) Parents are keener, it seems, to give stylish names to their sons: three out of five get a top name. John, Robert, William, George, until the other day as solid as Mary was, have slumped to make room for Michael, Jason, Matthew, Brian, and Christoper, Nos. 15 in 1975.

A hectic, incautious spirit is abroad, and yet 80 per cent of children born are named from a stock of only 125 different girl's and 100 boys' names (though boys acquire more nicknames). Along with those classic names that used to be safe as landed property, the custom of naming sons for their fathers or grandfathers is withering. How many will be grateful for that, as Henry James was when at last he no longer had to append "Junior" to his signature.

Names inevitably place their bearers socially, though neither author deals at great length with this hazardous subject. Dunkling tells us that in England traditional names (James, Edward, Thomas, Alexander, William, Benjamin, and Daniel) are more widely used by the upper classes than the rest of humanity, and are not abbreviated; when used by the working class they become Jim, Bill, and Ben. Relying on birth announcements in The Times of London for information about the preferences of top people, Dunkling would guess that a Charlotte born in 1971 is of higher social standing than one born six year later: as with fashionable clothes, people imitate their betters, who in turn shift to something different once they have been copied. But there are names greatly fancied at large that no person with social pretensions would be caught dead with. An English example is Darren, inspired by the televesion series "Betwitched."

It would take a heartless Mitfordian arbiter to do justice to the matter of class, but the novelist Alison Lurie has the required perfect pitch. Her naming the untidy student in The War Between the Tates Wendy (a name derived by J.M. Barrie from the term "friendy-wendy") is admirable. (To show how complex the subject is, in 1975 Wendy tied for No. 27 with Rachel and Karen - one U and two non-U names.)

Strange names tend to make strange people, and that is good reason for an Ileen, Daffeny, Greggory, Nanci, or Kraig to correct the spelling of his or her name. And perhaps Minniehaha, Farewell, Bonus, Perpugilliam, and Queenation, all actual Smiths, would have down well to start again from scratch. Though Anderson agrees, and even tells the reader how to go about cahnging his name legally, he points out that odd names have been no obstacle to such as Willibald H. Conzen, Derald H. Ruttenberg, Andrall E. Pearson, and R. Burt Bookin, all of whom draw record salaries, according to Forbes magazines. Perhaps success is a form of compensation. Naive parents have hoped to assure a great future for their offspring by such title-names as Duke, Lord, Queen, Professor, Admiral, and Rabbi. On the other hand, Dunkling points out the psychological trap into which people fall when they take their roles so seriously as to think of themselves as Professor, Doctor, or Mother, rather than Ned, Paul, or Sue.

"Wrong" names are often simply unfashionable, not grotesque; names that were too perishably fashionable when given. But sometimes they are thought up by parents callous to what a child must suffer at school with such a monicker as Amorous, Rowdy, Ham, Butter, or Chastity. Anderson cites an experiment that shows elementary school teachers reacting sharply to wrong names. For work of equal merit Michael, David, Lisa, and Karen got a grade higher than Elmer, Hubert, Adelie, and Bertha.

He also publishes a long list of names with their connotations for good or ill. The U.S. college students polled find Ann ladylike and honest but not pretty, while Anne is beautiful but untrustworthy; Bernadette is saintly; Dora dull but physically active; Fifi passionate; Opal shunned. Among boys Ben is very manly, zealous, and popular, while Benjamin is dishonest; Dick is exceptionally manly and well-liked, Richard merely good-looking; Lee is a spectator of life; Malcolm lethargic; Myrca pathetic; Christopher, the author's own name, diligent and intelligent.Dunkling's polls produce somewhat different results, but the points is the same: names carry powerful magic.

The magisterial Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names , by E.G. Withycombe (Oxford, $9.95; paperback, $4.95) has just appeared in a revised edition. It combines an account of the quirky history of nomenclature from its Semitic and Indo-European origins up to the electric Anglo-American present (U.S. parents may be perplexed to learn that France and Germany have laws curbing invention) and generous historical comment on some 2000 names.

A book called Remarkable Names of Real People , by John Train (Clarkson Potter) will be published in a a month or two. It should be rewarding to see what can be endured and even triumphed over.